Purity: A Novel

Image of Purity: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 31, 2015
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

ultimately bores and irritates, rather than pleases and compels. Franzen has a lot to offer, but he needs to stop simpering and whining.”

Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, is pretty good. Sprawling, panoramic, enjoyable. An American White Teeth or How We Live Now. His second, Strong Motion, is stultifying, monotonic, and turgid. His third, The Corrections—famously composed under spartan, industrial conditions—is a genuine masterpiece. The fourth, Freedom, is a combination of two and three. His latest novel, Purity, is also a hybrid of brilliance and boredom, but it skews, rather heavily, toward the latter. Franzen aims for the authority and craftsmanship of Updike, lacking only the wit, gravity, observant detail, and devout prose.

Pip “Purity” Tyler is a depressive young woman drowning in student debt. She’s deadened by a dead-end job, asphyxiated by a needy mother, unhappily cowering in a squatter’s hovel. Pip is not political or a do-gooder, like her housemates, and lacks money. She waits to pounce on an unhappily married older man in the squat. Through Annagret, an ideologue passing through town, Pip is introduced to Andreas Wolf, a renowned German Hactivist and Leaker extraordinaire.

The first obstacle, of which there are many, is that Pip is the most irritating fictive character in centuries—a car alarm, blaring in the night, which may change tone but will never shut off. She’s not evil or malignant in any compelling or dramatic sense, bur merely banal, unpleasant, and ordinary—and, as Tolstoy says, therefore most terrible. She owes more to the narcissistic amazing-like-literally millennials of reality TV than to the heroines, or anti-heroes, of literature. Franzen offers realityism instead of realism.

Characterization and motivation are problematic as well. The characters’ actions are often hard to believe and inadequately defined—not in the foolishly inconsistent manner of real life, but in the oh-come-on style of melodrama and sitcom. Pip, for example, is insightful and focused, but only when Franzen wants her to be. The style and tone of Purity are also bumpy and uneven, an awkward linguistic stuccato. The narrator’s voice is a pubescent boy’s pitch-quivering shriek.

Part I belongs to Pip. She’s the center of consciousness, and Franzen uses the narrator as her ventriloquist’s dummy, moving its lips but her own larynx. However, he’s rather shaky with this voice. “Wasn’t asking for a recipe supposed to be good coin of the female realm?” This sentence, an echo of Pip’s interior monologue, is not only stilted in its own right but far off the mark in terms of mimicking a young woman, much less Pip herself. “[G]ood coin of the female realm” is the construction, one would guess, of a male, 50-something sci-fi reader or role-playing adventure game enthusiast. A Franzen.

Such pitch imperfect syntax, rife throughout Purity, is disappointing in a writer of Franzen’s putative technical gifts. Perhaps he needs a return to the Soviet Bloc austerity that fostered the beauty and precision of The Corrections.

The novel begins in medias res with plentiful dialogue, scant backgrounding or narration, and uncharacteristically plain prose. This changes drastically—and for the worse—later on. Regarding style, one early exception to Franzen’s new simplicity is when Pip’s politically committed acquaintances discuss economics. The narrative center switches from her to them, ironically subsuming their abstract, jargony chatter:

“Their theory was that technology-driven gains in productivity and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs would inevitably result in better wealth distribution, including generous payments to most of the population for doing nothing, when Capital realized that it could not afford to pauperize the consumers who bought its robot-made products. Unemployed consumers would acquire an economic value equivalent to their lost value as actual laborers, and could join forces with the people still working in the service industry, thereby creating a new coalition of labor and the permanently unemployed, whose overwhelming size would compel social change.”

Franzen’s drunk-driving swerve in prose and tone is largely consistent with the characters in question; however, the execution is clumsy and jarring. His brusque shifts are neither pleasant to read nor leavened with adequate transitions.

Moreover, in passages such as this, we feel the author smirking as he types, proud of his dense, solemn, socially-conscious work, pleased as punch to get a gold star and be the teacher’s pet. “Serious issues” are always the worst part of a Franzen novel and, unfortunately, Purity is crammed Calcutta-full with longwinded diatribes, technical data, and ponderous exposition.

To be clear, though, Franzen has not, in his latest novel, constructed a brilliant-if-difficult Rubik’s Cube in the vein of Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow. Instead, he’s simply taken the most lethargic and uninspired bits from social realism, modernism, and other traditions, but without the spark or panache. Purity is a fictive jeremiad that suggests Cotton Mather and Upton Sinclair sitting around writing John Barth fan fiction.

The irony is that Franzen, ostensibly the apotheosis of Literary Fiction, deploys the kind of of prosaic technical detail normally associated with techno-thrillers and other genre work. His version is less engaging, less appealing, more earnest.

We have an unhealthy penchant for overpraising and overindulging the Long, Serious Novel, despite the lack of evidence that such work requires more talent to create or is, in some objective or even subjective sense, better. We flatter ourselves when we praise Hulking Important (generally Himportant) Literary Fiction because we’re indirectly attesting to our own ability to discern and appreciate the grinding ecstasy of—well, not of reading but of having endured the writing. HILF isn’t hard to write. It’s only hard to write well, as Franzen inadvertently demonstrates.

There are a few things to enjoy and admire in Purity, and some HILFworks are indeed masterpieces, but we should give more credit to small self-contained lyric novels. SLYs can be just as important, serious and technically deft. They often possess greater judgment and dexterity because they avoid inundating readers with Big Ideas and Bigger Opinions. Gatsby is the archetypal SLY. Its compression, leanness, allusiveness, poetry—and particularly its ability to radiate out toward epic scale but without extravagance, pretention or epic length—is what shows genuine talent and art.

We need to stop assuming that a novel is great simply because it’s hard to read, epic, dull or tackles the Major Issues of the day. Franzen breaks the cardinal rule of fiction in that he Tells when he should be Showing. More to the point, he’s quick to Grandstand when, at the very least, he could simply Tell.

Nonetheless, Franzen has managed to shape a story and characters that, for short periods, grip and entertain; however, these passages are the exception and are often plagued by implausible plotting. For example, Pip brings a man home, takes him to her bedroom, and prepares to sleep with him. While stepping to the bathroom for a moment, she’s confronted by a houseguest who asks her to take a questionnaire. For more than an hour Pip answers a series of bizarre, intrusive questions. Meanwhile, the man waits in the bedroom. The scene is not milked for humor or pathos. It tells us nothing about Pip we don’t already know, and her far-fetched actions are never adequately explained.

Part II is a much needed U-turn. The story of Andreas Wolf is alluring and, on the surface, quite different from Pip’s in plot, setting and tone, though thematically nearly identical. Franzen engages with the most reliable of novelistic ideas, what Faulkner calls “the old fierce pull of blood” that drags us back to our family even if—or perhaps especially when—we want to escape from them, even as we’re moving beyond them to establish our own identities. Oedipus, Hamlet, Fathers and Sons, The Brothers Karamazov, The Catcher in the Rye, The Joy Luck Club. It’s an old and resilient story that can bear repeating and reimagining.

Franzen’s take on the myth involves children seeking parents—natural, adoptive, potential, figurative—parental figures seeking children, and each player caught between the horns of a moral dilemma. They all search for purity, but of course the novel is primarily about Purity seeking her father. The issue is put most clearly and directly in terms of Andreas:

“His life seemed to him a long war between two sides of him, the sick side that he had from his mother, the scrupled side that he had from a nongenetic father.”

Notice the plain reportorial language and Hemingwayesque repetition of “him” and its cognates. This is the novel’s crux. Moral, psychological, emotional and spiritual purity are never attainable, always murky, persistently linked to paternity and maternity. Franzen’s gargantuan misstep is that this search for family is referenced far too often, in a ham-fisted manner, and plotted with extreme improbability. Pip has the following exchange with Stephen, the married man with whom she’s infatuated. Stephen cites a conversation with his wife:

“‘I didn’t want babies. I kept telling her, “What do we need babies for? We have Ramon, we have Pip. We can still be good parents.” And that’s what you are to me. Like a daughter.’”

In this short passage, Stephen has alluded to: his adoptive child, Ramon; Pip, his substitute daughter; and the theoretical genetic baby that his wife wants. Pip responds:

“‘I have a parent! I don’t need another parent!’”

He replies:

“‘Well, actually, it kind of seemed like you did.’”

Scenes such as this are reenacted many times throughout the book in each of its intertwining plots. Franzen is clever, intricate, and compelling up to a point. And that is the point of boredom and utter lack of verisimilitude. The novel’s obsession with the issue ultimately bores and irritates, rather than pleases and compels. This is especially true since the dynamic is addressed directly, rather than unconsciously pursued, by the characters.

The more unforgiveable sin, however, is the punishing repetition of both Daddy Issues and Pip’s ambivalence about getting romantically involved with Andreas. She’s conflicted and indecisive about every decision, in fact. Large chunks of Purity amount to nothing more than witnessing Pip fret and waver. “She was massively confused.” This revelation is unnecessary. She’s been confused for 285 pages and spends the next 10 agonizing over the same issues. Do I like him? Do I love him? Do I hate him? Should I kiss him? Pip, and other characters, exhaust their lives, and our patience, asking and re-asking the same dull, predictable questions. The content, characterization, and tone would be suitable in a 12-year-old’s diary.

The next few sections of Purity are rendered primarily in narration. There is little foregrounding, dialogue, or action—at least no action that moves the plot forward or compels our interest. Instead, we have lifeless exposition, potted history, second- and third-hand information. Much of it seems forced and false. The scant dialogue is dense with technical data.

“Fissile plutonium atoms were nature’s unicorns, and nowhere in the universe could a critical mass of them naturally assemble itself. People had to force it to occur, and to force the mass further, with explosives, into a superdense state in which the chain reaction could proceed through enough generations to ignite fusion. And how quickly it all happened. Jiggling atomic droplets of plutonium ingesting neutron newcomers, cleaving into smaller droplets, spewing further neutrons.”

This is a small taste of a larger meal. Ostensibly, passages such as this are meant to dazzle and impress, but they seem desperate and fatuous. Anyone can type a long novel filled with big words, and many do it better than Franzen. He’s trying to be a David Foster Wallace, but he’s not even a David Lipsky.

Franzen is floundering here, using dialogue to carry important plot points and to establish lengthy backstories rather than to reveal character, dramatic tension, and the relationship between characters.   

So much of the action occurs in the past perfect—a murky indeterminate time behind the simple past of the main story–and is merely told to us rather than lived out on the page. As a result, it’s difficult for the reader to care about the story and its people.

Franzen convolutes, obfuscates and overshadows whatever human story Purity has to tell. The narrator filibusters—not very well—and as a result the characters themselves, who wield the power to make us care, are silenced. Of course, they are so unlikeable—and not in spectacular but in quite mundane ways—that perhaps it’s beside the point. The novel contains very little drama. The action and emotion are cloistered as background material. We need storytelling, not smoke-and-mirrors, bildung not blather.

As an ardent admirer of Franzen’s work, I want to enjoy and esteem Purity, but Franzen seems to be daring the reader not to. He seems to suffer from intense fear of the simple story, perhaps sensing it would reveal that, behind globe-spanning plots and polysyllabism, a story is just a story and his is more words than substance. If he throws up enough words and scurries behind them, we might not realize how empty they are.

Franzen might feel, justifiably so, that he has no more stories to tell, at least not at the moment, but he’s a writer so it’s his job to write. The bills won’t pay themselves. Perhaps his eye is not on satisfying the reader at all but on the acquisition of literary prizes, which he’s savvy enough to realize are devoted to difficult epic grinds. Literary Fiction is, after all, a formula and a genre, no different from Fantasy or Romance, though the intelligentsia pretends otherwise. The distance between Clancy and Franzen is much smaller than we’re comfortable admitting.

Parts IV and V are more rich in dialogue, but the conversations—regarding trust, sex, love and virtue—are circular, self-absorbed and precious. Franzen is unable to portray insipid and annoying characters without making the story itself insipid and annoying. He’s created, to some extent, a compelling world with some alluring dynamics, but he’s peopled it with brats not pure enough to like or villainous enough to hate.

Action continues to take place in the wings, rarely bothering to walk across the stage—a feckless, no-count husband who won’t take out the trash; you want to divorce him but Franzen would rather talk about it for a few hundred pages. Purity is a novel in which people talk and watch and waver but often fail to do. One thinks of Franzen, the avid bird-watcher, quietly hidden behind a tree, binoculars raised, consulting a guidebook, watching all the pretty birds.

Names are a serious issue. “Purity” is Pip’s hidden name in the novel Purity, which is about purity. This betrays a literality, obviousness and bad taste that has, for the most part, remained latent in Franzen. The novel also features the predatory “Wolf,” the aberrant “Aberant,” and, most unforgivably, Phyllisha Babcock, a wanton woman and two-dimensional—or one, or perhaps her roundness cannot be measured as a positive integer—stock character. This dumb blonde yokel is as underdeveloped as one of the weaker SNL skits. That a promiscuous woman has a forename prefixed with “love”—Phyl—and a surname ending in “-cock” is sophomoric and certainly beneath the consideration of serious fiction. Of course, one can always cower behind the shield of postmodernity and claim that anything apparently weak is actually only an appropriation of the conventions of pulp writing, or something along those lines. It’s more truthful, however, to say that names like Phyllisha Babcock are simply as dumb as the unimaginative, listless characters they represent.

Franzen has a lot to offer, but he needs to stop simpering and whining. David Mitchell was accused of being nothing but a fancy-pants trickster without real depth or feeling so he wrote Black Swan Green—a slim, simple, streamlined, touching novel and yet another masterpiece, a true SLY—which proved his detractors wrong. Franzen needs to do the same.

Though he is a decent writer, we have overvalued him and his morbidly obese brethren. The shelves need more Trials, fewer Recognitions. We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking we’re supposed to admire these monsters and are frightened, by insecurity, to admit that we don’t. Or perhaps we’re merely lulled to sleep by the sheer narcotizing effect of these steroid-jacked HILFs. But it doesn’t take more skill or art to simply keep typing. The craft is knowing when to stop. Franzen’s work is in need of a sharp correction, not a rehash of The Corrections. He needs to let his story, if indeed he has one, speak for itself, rather than force it to cower behind a strand of trees, twitching, watching, note-taking, hiding in the foliage.